CASHING in on Northern Ireland's peace dividend has become big business and for one type of business in particular - political lobbying.
A political lobbyist is someone who has established a channel of communication with politicians and other decision makers and who will represent the interests of individuals, community groups and businesses in order to get their message across to the people who will ultimately form policies that will affect them.
While some lobbying companies have been in existence for a number of years, others have sprung out of the normalisation of politics here. Several public relations firms have set up lobbying departments in order to influence the new legislators while new companies dedicated to assisting bodies in the private or public sector get their issues on to the government agenda have also been established . These companies are already reporting brisk business with a wide range of concerns being raised by people across a range of sectors including business, health, or education.
Lobbyists will also interpret proposed or actual government actions and assess the impact that will have on their clients.
The whole notion of lobbying is probably more closely associated with the American system of government and the term political lobbyist with clandestine figures in Washington DC - where there are more than 100,000 lobbyists at work - who spend their time chasing around the corridors of Capitol Hill beseeching members of Congress to spearhead a cause for one of their clients.
However, Northern Ireland's political lobbying scene is still fresh as is the new framework for government. But there-in lies the problem. Which department, committee or individual do you go to if you have a specific concern? Some departments overlap, individuals responsibilities are blurred, committees require consensus by numerous members and should you raise an issue just with the Assembly or with the North-South Ministerial Council, the Civic Forum, the Council of the Isles, Westminster or even Europe?
There are 10 departments, all of which have scrutiny committees, another 7 ad hoc committees, 14 ministers and four parties in compulsory coalition government.
There is a plethora of bodies to get through and how best to do it? Enter the political lobbyist.
"The job is an essential part of the democratic process,'' says John Laird, whose Holywood based PR company has a political lobbying dimension. He is well placed to understand the calls on lobbyists being both on the receiving end of them as a member of the House of Lords and also as an active lobbyist.
"I see it from both sides of the counter by being a member of a legislature as well as being a professional lobbyist.
"I can appreciate the value of bringing issues to one's attention which one may not have considered to be important but then they are put to you with greater clarity so you can take action on them.
"In the House of Lords there are 690 peers and you can't expect that each one of them knows everything that is likely to come up. It is therefore important that a lobbyist creates a climate of information and opinion so they can achieve what they want.''
John Laird has been involved in lobbying for over 15 years but since the formation of the Assembly he has seen his business grow phenomenally.
"I've had to deal with all sorts of issues - food, planning, taxes, grants, hospitals, education - no sector has been excluded.
"We are behind what's happening in any other part of the UK because we have been out of the democratic loop for a number of years - but I am inundated on a day and daily basis with information at Westminster on behalf of other lobby organisations. It is interesting to see how they approach topics. That is exactly what we do on behalf of other people in the Northern Ireland scene.
"You get a very clear insight into the decision making process and into the minds of people who are making key decisions - what is likely to influence them. You get to know the people who make these decisions and what their views are.
John Laird insists that lobbyists should not pressurise or cajole legislators into backing their case. Their arguments must have genuine merit.
"You cannot attempt to succeed in something which does not have merit, That brings you and the case into disrepute.''
John Laird also insists it is in the interests of business to get to grips with the decision making process as ultimately government policies will have a major impact on their performance. He also claims that government need to feel that it is in touch with the people they are legislating for.
"A civil servant said to me not long ago 'we are legislating for you (the people). Unless we know what you want and what is likely to cause the maximum benefit we could easily make mistakes'.
"Lobbying is a difficult precision process - it's about getting the right information to the right people.
"There are three questions you always have to ask in lobbying - what do you want to say, to whom and when.''
One of the newest players on the lobbying stage is Stratagem. The company was established 18 months ago by former Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action director Quintin Oliver.
He claims people are hungry for information about the new structure and how it works, how to make contact and how to keep up with developments relevant to their cause.
"People ask for advice on strategy, how they need to position their business to take advantage of the opportunities or to protect against things happening in their field.
"We work with them on building their strategy and tell them who to contact when and how to make progress.
"We monitor what is happening because that is what people want to know about and we monitor after the event as well so that people can spot emerging issues as they are brewing in the complicated jigsaw of Northern Ireland governance."
Quintin Oliver says the next big test for political parties, and the first benchmark of success for the various lobbying organisations, will be the programme for government due to be published in the autumn.
"Our clients want to get their issues into that document. They want to get a line so that their interest will be advanced - that is very important.''
One of the issues he is currently dealing with involves tourism and the potential development of an all Ireland strategy.
"People in the tourist industry were very keen to find out what are the structures and who are the people to talk to, what are the parties positions, who are the key players, and how can they make contacts and build relationships.
"That is an example of us facilitating the building of tourism interests with the four parties of government - its an economic issue but is also involves heritage, culture, training, rural and social development.
"But is complicated to get round them all and to make it coherent and not fragmented.''
Technology is another big issue.
"People want to make Northern Ireland leading edge technologically. People want e-commerce to be made a reality and not just rhetoric for ministers to use in terms of investment and job creation.
"There is some concern about cross border activity as well. People are keen to do it where there is a business case for it. But there is a question mark still over the cross border trade and development body about whether it will be a barrier or a fast track to development.''
Stratagem already feels it has scored an early success following an intense lobbying campaign over the future status of the Port of Belfast on behalf of communities in the east of the city.
This contentious issue could see the port being privatised to raise money to develop Northern Ireland's roads and parts of the land being sold to property developers. Quintin Oliver says that he has been able to highlight issues such as where the money that is raised will go or how land will be leased, or how the plans for development will impact on the local community.
"We need to help groups to balance their argument - there are job creation opportunities with development and amenity space but there is concern to ensure land is not sold off and turned into apartments which the local community will not be able to afford.''
Some people may feel uncomfortable with the whole concept of lobbying, insisting that it is a politician's job to know what is happening on the ground and that people should not have to pay someone to highlight their particular issue.
However, political consultant Richard Gordon who heads lobbying company Stormont Strategy insists that everything is above board.
"We operate by the strict codes of ethics of political consultants so its not a case of sleaze or brown envelopes - it's a case of a legitimate democratic process keeping people informed and making sure that those who are involved know what all the arguments are.
"A company could do it themselves but they would have to employ more people of their own to keep abreast of all the information.
"We have a range of significant corporate clients so we are constantly scanning the information that is coming out of the Assembly, committees and departments.
"We sift through that to see which bits are of interest to our clients and we report to them on what is happening in the political process.''
As well as representing people in Northern Ireland, lobbyists are often called upon by outside organisations to provide information about the complicated structures of government in the province.
In addition, lobbying companies from a variety of regions will often provide information to large corporate clients who wish to get a nationwide feel for policy.
Richard Gordon says a client will then have all the facts at their fingertips in order to see all the things that are happening across the country which may effect them as a business.
"That is what we are about - the things that can affect the bottom line for business.
"In business terms those who feel things most keenly are those who are heavily regulated or heavily subject to rules of one sort or another.
"At the end of the day it is about what the Assembly is doing in legislative terms, where it can interfere with businesses or charities or the voluntary sector in ways which either helps them achieve their goals or stops them from doing that. That is the crunch. Can you influence what politicians are doing in such a way that your clients can achieve their corporate goals more easily.''
Richard Gordon says that accessibility is the key and Assembly members have been most willing to respond to issues broached by lobbyists.
"We have had good meetings with all the individuals and committees. We are enormously encouraged by the sort of reaction we've had in talking to the MLA's about bread and butter issues which is what they want to be seen to be handling.''
For businesses getting issues which affect them across to legislators is of prime importance. Lobbyists will signpost the direction in which they should be going and by so doing guide them through the labyrinthine corridors of government.…